The 1980’s was a totally different age in terms of how movies were made, screened and remembered by the viewing public. Filmmaking is no cheap affair, just like back then, but the exploitation market today feels reliant on one’s inability to spend, rather than the shocks within the narrative. After being mainly impressed with unimpressive gore-fest that was Pieces, I genuinely expected a similar treat in The Exterminator, an action movie directed by James Glickenhaus with a premise similar to First Blood’s, but with a meat grinder. Aside from one or two winces however there’s little going on in this film to get excited over.
John Eastland (Robert Ginty) is a Vietnam veteran now making his way through life as a (ridiculously tall) food warehouse worker. When his best war buddy Michael (Steve James) is paralyzed by a group of animalistic thugs, he dishes out revenge with the same coldness exposed to him by the Vietcong years ago. When this streak of vigilante antics becomes a full blown spree police detective James Dalton (Christopher George) becomes obsessed over finding the man now dubbed by the media as ‘The Exterminator’.
This film has one of the most deceptive openings in cinematic history: fifteen percent of the production’s budget went into staging the very elaborate and explosive Vietnam battle scene, which is shortly followed by arguably the most brutal and realistic looking decapitations of all time. It serves well in making us understand the horror our protagonist went through, but because of the ostensibly little character development to follow it isn’t tied together with the film’s anti-hero sentiment.
Plenty of unique story opportunities and horrific outcomes are squandered by limited resources and a plot that meanders like no tomorrow. We don’t spend enough time with each character, whether it’s our morally grey protagonist (who at one point picks up a prostitute without much explanation), the cop with essentially no bearing on the plot or the crippled friend who was, before his defining spine gouging, the story’s most sympathetic figure. There’s a general dull tone to the proceedings that makes its feel like it’s not embracing the madness like its peers would, yet not rising above them either.
Laced throughout are true skin-crawling moments classic to such a B-movie, drawing cruelty from its seedy underworld New York setting white washed with a nihilistic overtone, involving flesh scarred by a soldering iron and a body burnt to the black covered bone. Some of the other deaths, though, are held back by the low budget, most notably the death by flamethrower so blatantly advertised on the poster which even off screen never happens.
What doesn’t help the script’s lack of attention is the too often very poorly handled editing and acting; even if I was lying I couldn’t tell a woman her husband had just been beaten near death with such a monotone voice, and I reckon even you could do a better New York accent. The 80’s stock-synth music is almost desensitising at this point, but considering the overall higher quality of the filming it’s far more glaring than usual.
If The Exterminator showed a single shred of attention to any of its aspects, whether it be the characters, the CIA subplot or the violence then you’d understand why Arrow gave it the royal treatment. With its scattershot approach however it offers little else than vague subtext buried under the occasional exceptional execution.
Words > Graham Ashton